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Lewis & Clark led from the front

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

In 1805, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark came to an unexpected fork in the Missouri River. According to all the intelligence the explorers had received, this river wasn’t supposed to exist.

The question: Which fork should they take?

That was no academic question: The explorers needed to reach the Rockies, find the Shoshone Indians and make their way to the Columbia River if they were to reach the Pacific before winter. Lewis feared that the entire expedition might fail.

Facing a pressing decision, Lewis and Clark started gathering facts. Nothing was conclusive. Finally, they each walked a fork of the river with a small team, and each decided independently that the true river must be the south fork.

It was not a popular decision. Even the group’s most skilled boatman and navigator picked the north fork. Although they remained unconvinced, the expedition’s members followed their leaders. (It helped that Lewis and Clark had included their team members in every previous decision.)

As it turned out, Lewis and Clark were correct, largely because they used these tactics:
  • Stand your ground. Lewis and Clark based their decision on logic and facts, such as water clarity. They weren’t swayed.

  • Put yourself in the line of fire. You can’t delegate responsibility in critical moments. An employee’s perspective (in this case, the navigator’s) may be limited.

  • Take to the field yourself. After they’d dispatched two sergeants who came back with inconclusive evidence, the captains knew it was their responsibility to go.
— Adapted from Into the Unknown: Leadership Lessons from Lewis and Clark’s Daring Westward Expedition, Jack Uldrich, Amacom.

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